It was a lovely spring day, the birds sang their songs, tree branches waved flirtatiously, children played and I walked on, at peace with the world.
I was on my way to the Golden Age Jewish Center to try and interview a few of the elder members.
A few days earlier, my wife, Marcia, had what I thought was an excellent idea, “Oscar,” she started, “I think it would be a good idea to do a series on senior citizens. They are like a forgotten species, continually overlooked.”
As I came abreast of the Center, I saw an elderly man seated on a stone ledge just outside the front door. There was something about him that intrigued me.
There he sat, the past intruding on the present. He was short and frail, but his back was military straight. His hands were the size of a child’s and he rested them on a cane with a gold handle. He looked like he might be 85 or possibly older although his face was free of noticeable lines.
What really placed him apart, were his clothes. They smacked of another era, another time. His head was adorned with a broad brimmed felt hat. A velvet jacket that had seen better days, lay draped, European style over narrow shoulders. A size fourteen neck displayed a detachable shirt collar from which a string tie dangled saucily. His trousers were a mite too short and exposed a pair of shiny, patent leather button-up boots.
I sat down beside him. “Do you mind if I sit near you,” I asked. “First you sit, then you ask?” His voice seemed to be saying, “go away”. Contriteness was in order. “I’m awfully sorry, please, please accept my apology, “ I said, while hitting my brow with my open palm.
“You can call me Israel.”
“Israel nothing. One name is plenty!”
“Okay I accept that. The thing is Mr. Israel, I’m a writer and I want to talk to you about your past”.
“Who needs my past, it’s the future I need, “ he said rubbing his hands together as if scoring a point. “What is with this past business anyway?”
“I’m trying to get people of mature age to tell me a little of their history and possibly put those histories into a book.”
He looked me up and down and even a little sideways. He’d made up his mind to trust me up to a point. “How old is like mature?” he asked. “Maybe I’m not yet mature or maybe I’m too old. So how old do you think I’m being already?” He was prepared to go on but I held out my hand.
“ I would say you’re about seventy or less.” A compliment couldn’t hurt I thought.
“Sonny,” the old man said, “From lying you couldn’t make a living — but a compliment I accept. For you now, a surprise, I’m ninety years in the business of staying alive, is that too old?”
I laughed, “Too old? Are you kidding. You’re my man and I want your story.”
“You want my story?”
“Yes, yes, and double yes,” I said.
“Okay, but first my braces you should see,” as he spoke he swept his jacket to one side exposing a stained and frayed pair of suspenders. “Second but really first, you can buy me a pair new braces.”
“Will you give me your story if I buy you a pair of new braces”
He raised his eyes, “For one pair braces, my life story you want? For even two pair braces, it don’t pay.” With that he sat back, satisfied he’d won the round.
I was beginning to see it wouldn’t be a piece of cake.
“Let me explain”, I began again patiently. “I just want to be able to talk to you awhile, it would be an enjoyment for me.”
“For you maybe an enjoyment, for me one pair braces and raking up my coals and sonny, you’ll forgive me, but you look like a kid from sixty years. You should know it’s not easy to shovel up the past.”
“No coals and no shovels,” I hastened to explain. “Just a few comfortable easy questions. We’ll go inside, we’ll sit down in the cafeteria, we’ll order some coffee and maybe a sandwich or two, and we’ll talk like civilized men.” I could see he wasn’t really listening, seemingly lost in another world. I bore down.
“I’m not wet behind the ears Mr. Israel with no second name. I’m a junior senior citizen who has put in almost sixty two years on this planet and you are astute enough to almost guess my right age.” I stopped for breath before continuing. “You’re not only astute, but a man of deep wisdom, insight and maturity—a man who has gone through a lot, a man of the world.” Now caught up in my own rhetoric, I raised my voice to a near shout. “So why not” I shouted, “make a contribution of this to the world?”
The old man removed his hands covering his ears. “Mr. Colman, you’ll be so kind, I may be old, but not yet deaf. Please to lower the voice.” He extended his right arm. It seemed to say, ‘your turn now.’
I opened my mouth just enough to whisper, “I’m sorry, I’m a little hard of hearing–the war–sometimes I don’t realize how loud I’m talking.”
The man’s face softened as he asked, “For whom you are writing, a magazine, a paper maybe, what is it?”
“I’m free-lance. That means I write for any newspaper, magazine or publisher.”
‘With my braces,” the old man had gone back to his original theme, “With my braces,” he repeated, “ You can buy me also some fruit—a half dozen nice red MacIntosh apples, a dozen Sunkist oranges, and from the light green grapes without the seeds, a pound.”
He stopped to inquire, “Are you married?”
“Yes,” I replied weakly. What next, I thought.
“So for your wife you can also buy a pound grapes, but remember, light green grapes–the best kind,” he emphasized, smacking his lips.
There was still no commitment. I was beginning to feel there never would be a story, that Israel would never reveal his past and the world would never know what it missed. Nevertheless, I had to try again.
“I’ll get you all the fruit you want—I’ll get you the nicest pair of braces in the whole world—I’ll buy you a cup of tea—I’ll buy you lunch—I’ll take you driving to Belmont Park, but please, please at your convenience, Sir Israel, sit down with me and let me ask you some questions about your life, OK?”
Israel rubbed his hands gleefully. He was enjoying himself to the hilt. It wasn’t often that so much attention was bestowed upon him. He was playing it for all its worth, ringing out the last drop of pleasure.
“Tomorrow you’ll buy the whole thing like I already told. You’ll come to my apartment, number 617 at twelve o’clock.” He pointed to a low rental senior citizen apartment building directly across from the Center. “I’ll serve you a glass tea with lemon yet and a cube sugar. Pictures from my wife, my children, my grandchildren, my great grandchildren, I’ll show you. Comfortable we’ll sit, balbatish, like two menschen, and questions by the thousands you can ask. OK boychick?”
My face lit up for a minute until I remembered that I would be out of town for at least three days. “I can’t tomorrow, I’ll be out of town for a few days, but how about we make it for Thursday at the same time?”
“A date it is,” Israel said, tipping his hat.
I beamed, I felt closer to the man, began to even like him, this small, frail, eccentric man with the old country European look. We shook hands.
As I got up to leave I idly asked, “Are you by chance a member of the Golden Age Center?”
Israel’s face reddened, he shook with agitation, “Am I a member, am I a member,” he repeated, “I’m a member from over thirty years,” his words were starting to come together now in his excitement, “Such a member all members should be.” He paused, smiling bitterly, “But you know here they don’t appreciate, no appreciation for how long I’m serving and coming and going and listening.”
Oh boy, another story, I enthused silently. Out loud I asked, “How come?”
“How come, how come? I’m glad you asked, this is a story from last week yet,” he shook his head, he’d already gone back in time, his eyes had a strange look.
He leaned forward, his face inches away from mine. “In the cafeteria I’m ordering a cheese sandwich. Always when I’m ordering a sandwich, inside I look first. What I’m seeing is making me feel sick to my stomach. It looks like, the expression you’ll excuse, like a dried piece of drek. I said to the lady behind the counter very kindly, “Lady I want you should look at this sandwich from the outside and the inside.” She gives a look and in two seconds this expert is finished to inspect and by her, everything is coming out like roses. She says, giving me a dirty look, “Mister, this sandwich I’m making myself personal and by me is no bad sandwich.”
“By you is one thing,” I said, “But by me the insides is no cheese but drekola and I want for you to make me a real sanitary cheese sandwich, like a gentleman could eat.”
I was near bursting and just managed to blurt, “So what happened?” without dying of laughter.
“What happened? It’s a good question. She gave me such a look, I could be dead from such a look and she said from lips together so tight that I don’t know how words came out, “Mr. Nudnik,” Nudnik she called me, “Mr. Nudnik, this perfect sandwich you will now take to the cashier, and seventy cents from your pocket you will take and goodbye and good riddance.”
He stopped, a grim look on his face. He took a couple of deep breaths and continued the story. “To the cashier I paid the money and then on the floor I threw the sandwich, and then on the sandwich I jumped and the whole while I was jumping, I was yelling, “This is a drek sandwich, not a cheese sandwich.” “You can’t believe boychickle how much pleasure it gave me. It was such a good feeling, from stopping I didn’t know. After a couple minutes came two members from the high staff that they are working there in the building to see what’s it all about and without one question even they asked me to leave and then they told me, a member of thirty years, not to come back.”
He waited for signs of sympathy.
I bit down hard on my tongue, “It’s,” I cleared my throat, “An unfortunate situation, a misunderstanding.” I slyly added, “It was a moving experience.”
Israel was mollified. “By the way Mr. Colman, could be from your stories you’re making some money? Maybe even from my story?” He looked at me, his eyes dancing.
“If and when a story is sold there is some money.”
“So would you say from this, a living you’re making?”
“A modest living only.” It was evident that an additional bite was coming.
It came. “So now kindly add to the braces and the fruit, ten dollars, cash money it should be”.
”You’ve got a deal, but remember that it is possible that your story may not be published. One can only hope.”
“Hope,” he grabbed the word as if with calipers, ‘everybody hopes. I hope to live to a hundred at least. The mohel hopes a good cut to make. The tailor hopes a fine suit to make. A young woman hopes to marry a man with a future.”
I held up my hands to stop him. Laughingly I said, “It’s all true, we must work, we must hope and I hope to have a nice long talk with you on my return.”
We eyed each other fondly. We shook hands. As I was leaving, Israel called out, “Don’t forget the green grapes with the seeds they shouldn’t have.”
At the appointed time I stood reading the legend in the lobby of the apartment building. It read Dr. Israel Cohen.
Wow, wow and double-wow, I thought. This guy has got a story to beat all stories.
I pressed the buzzer and waited. There was no answer. I consulted my watch, it read 12:01 exactly. I prided myself on my punctuality. I pressed the buzzer again and again with no response. As I was about to leave, a little old lady entered the lobby. “You must be Mr. Colman, the famous writer,” she said looking me up and down.
I was puzzled. “How did you know my name?”
“Ha, how do I know? Didn’t Dr. Cohen tell everybody about how you were begging for an interview to have with him. Day and night, night and day, he talked about the visit.”
“So how come he’s not answering the door for the famous writer?”
“It’s a very simple reason, Dr. Cohen, poor man, passed away yesterday and before dying he called me in and said, ‘Rachel, I want you to tell Mr. Colman, the famous author, my apologies to accept that I can’t keep the appointment on account of I’ll be boxed in.’ He died laughing.”
“Did he say anything else?”
“By the way, he did, come to think of it. He also said, ‘On the other side we’ll have a nice long talk. I’ll be waiting patiently, tell him to look me up.’”
I brought the new braces down to Papermans’ Funeral Home and instructed the mortician to replace Israel’s old braces with the new ones.
On the day of the funeral, I got up early, I put on my best suit, I purchased the MacIntosh apples, a dozen Sunkist Oranges, and a pound of light green seedless grapes. I arranged it all carefully in a wicker basket, covered it lightly with cellophane, tied a ribbon in a bow and went off to the funeral parlor.
There may have been some two dozen people present. I walked up to the coffin, opened the casket and satisfied myself that the new braces were on.
‘Wear them in good health,” I whispered.
I placed a ten dollar bill (cash money) in his pocket and said, “I also didn’t forget the fruit–I have here some nice MacIntosh apples, some Sunkist oranges and a pound of delicious light green seedless grapes. I put the basket beside him, closed the casket and left.
Oscar Colman is Age 88, feels like 98, thinks like 58. You can read Oscar’s hilarious tale “The Mohel’s Assistant” right here in Shtetl Magazine. Oscar is pictured to the left with his beloved wife (and editor) Marcia.